Daniel Larison

The Hawks Try To Purge One of Their Own

Philip Klein normally has a rather flexible definition of what passes for being “anti-Israel.” As I recall, when J Street held their first conference, he declared that they were an “anti-Israel” organization. So when he asserted earlier this month that California Republican Senate candidate Tom Campbell had an “anti-Israel voting record” I was pretty skeptical. As it turns out, Klein and the others who have embarked on this get-Campbell campaign are amazingly wrong about Campbell and his record. This isn’t some disagreement over emphasis or interpretation of ambiguous statements or actions. The critics have been simply wrong. While it is rather amusing to see foreign policy hawks attempting to tear down one of their own out of sheer ignorance and overreaction, the entire episode over the last week and a half does tell us some more important things about the state of the GOP and conservative movement and about the California Senate race itself.

To take the second point first, we can see that Campbell’s opponents are flailing about in desperation and will employ any claim to attack him, no matter how much misrepresentation it might involve. Since he entered the race, Campbell has enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls over Fiorina and DeVore, and of the three he has the best polling numbers against Boxer. DeVore was the one to get the ball rolling in attacking Campbell on this point, but he remains a distant third and is mainly running a protest candidacy with little chance of prevailing over the other two. Except for the mostly negative and mocking attention she was able to garner with her weird “demon sheep” ad, Fiorina has not been able to gain much traction, and so she has started trying to exploit Campbell’s tenuous, limited connection with the Al-Arian case. Like her tenure at HP, Fiorina’s campaign has not been going well. What we learn from this is that Campbell’s opponents seem unusually unscrupulous and/or sloppy, and it also tells us that hard-line hawkish policy views are must-haves even within the California GOP primary electorate.

The campaign to cast Campbell as “anti-Israel” started in the camps of his primary competitors, but it was then picked up by some conservative blogs and took on something of a life of its own. Obviously, the unfounded attack was aimed at destroying Campbell’s candidacy within the GOP. This would have had the effect of eliminating or crippling the candidate with the best, albeit still remote, chance of defeating Boxer. Some of the people carrying out the campaign attacking Campbell claimed that they wanted to prevent the GOP from nominating someone with such a grave liability, when the liability, so called, never existed.

What they managed to do instead was to demonstrate their own knee-jerk fanaticism on this question of what is required to be “pro-Israel,” and it shows how ready some movement conservatives are to turn against even those Republican candidates who are reliable hawks when there is the slightest hint of deviation from their own hard line. As it turned out, the “hints” in Campbell’s case were misleading and meaningless. Campbell is safe from continued attacks because he is actually a dangerous and aggressive hawk himself, exemplified by his support for Israeli military action against Iran, but if someone as genuinely hawkish as Campbell can be targeted even temporarily with a smear campaign for being “anti-Israel” there is not going to be much chance for candidates who hold skeptical, realist or non-interventionist views within the Republican electorate. As for Campbell, he will be sure not to risk taking any positions that might be misinterpreted in the future. Of course, the reinforcement of the party line is the point of the exercise, so unfortunately it scarcely matters that some of the enforcers have shredded their credibility in the process.

P.S. Carly Fiorina said this in her recent statement:

What is clear is that Tom Campbell and I couldn’t disagree more when it comes to policy regarding our nation’s relationship with Israel.

So does that mean that Fiorina is now the one who should be considered “anti-Israel”? This just drives home how contemptible and stupid this ritual denunciation really is.

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Revisiting The Iraq War Debate

Reihan:

I’m sensitive to this in part because I remember when pro-war conservatives spent huge amounts of time taking on the notion that President Bush wanted to invade Iraq to seize its oil wealth, to expand America’s empire, or to serve Israeli interests. It was a lot of fun to tackle these arguments because they made critics of the Iraq War look like kooky conspiracy theorists. And some of them — very large numbers of them, perhaps — were kooky conspiracy theorists! But I wish that we in the pro-war camp had spent more time thinking about and not dismissing arguments about the opportunity costs of a prolonged military occupation of Iraq or the dangers posed by Iraq’s ethno-sectarian divides.

Mind you, the vast majority of arguments put forward by antiwar conservatives (including most of the arguments published by TAC) and war opponents generally focused on “the opportunity costs of a prolonged military occupation of Iraq or the dangers posed by Iraq’s ethno-sectarian divides,” but there were also a good number that addressed the empire and “pro-Israel” angles. Pro-war conservatives preferred to fixate on the latter because these arguments made it easier to demonize the antiwar position in the eyes of other conservatives, most of whom support the empire and would be happy to serve Israeli interests (which many of them readily conflate with our own), but they never made much of a case that these arguments were wrong, much less obviously “kooky.” Yes, of course, pro-war conservatives believe them to be kooky, but these people also usually believe that the Iraq war was a vital and necessary campaign of national defense and some of them still hang on to the fiction that invading Iraq without cause had something to do with anti-terrorism, which are ideas so far removed from reality that one might almost call them kooky. So perhaps their judgments in this area should not be relied on too heavily.

I have always marveled at the pro-war right’s insistence that Iraq had nothing to do with imperialism or Israel. On the whole, pro-war conservatives agree that the U.S. should have an active, aggressive foreign policy, and they believe the U.S. should work to maintain and increase American primacy in the world. They fully support the empire of military bases we have scattered around the world, and they are quie convinced of the virtues of Pax Americana.

When hegemonists eagerly support a given policy overseas, it is not a great leap to conclude that they support it because they believe it will help preserve and extend American hegemony. As they often are, they may be spectacularly wrong in their expectations, but what they hoped to accomplish is quite clear. Furthermore, when you set out to launch a war of aggression to depose another country’s government and install one more to your liking, it is not unreasonable to describe this as imperialism. There are some, such as Max Boot, who positively gloried in the possibilities of neo-imperialism, while others were more circumspect, but what most pro-war conservatives seemed to share was a desire to project U.S. power and increase it. What is more, they wished to increase it through the blunt instrument of military invasion and occupation. Were any other state to do what our government did, we would immediately hear accusations of imperialism from the very same people who pretended that invading Iraq was nothing of the kind. Indeed, during a much less clear-cut war in Georgia it was Iraq hawks who were the loudest and most irrational in their warnings about “Russian imperialism.” When zealous “pro-Israel” advocates constantly agitate for aggressive policies in the Near East, it is difficult to pretend that their “pro-Israel” zeal and their desire to support Israel are not major factors.

Pro-war conservatives prefer to speak of U.S. hegemony rather than empire, but the case of the Iraq war reminds us that the distinction doesn’t mean very much in practice. They are also reliably among the most ardent and hawkish “pro-Israel” people in the country and they judge every U.S. policy in the region according to its impact on Israel, but it is somehow unforgiveably “kooky” to point out that their views on the Iraq war were driven to a significant extent by their (exaggerated) concern for Israeli security. What is even more strange is that pro-war conservatives always take great offense when they are “accused” of believing things that they believe as a matter of course.

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Even If Iran Sanctions “Work,” They Will Not Achieve Their Real Objective

If sanctions are waged in the name of the Iranian people, we are much more likely to see Western opinion remain solidly behind them. ~Gerecht and Dubowitz

When you consider the effect that “crushing” sanctions will have on the Iranian people, this seems a very odd thing to say. Western opinion might continue to back such sanctions out of a misguided belief that the sanctions were helping the Iranian people against their government, but all this tells us is that Western opinion will be wrong yet again on the virtues of sanctioning an authoritarian government. To the extent that “crushing” sanctions are effective, they will be disastrous for most Iranians, and they will be fatal to the mobilization of a strong political opposition. Gasoline sanctions advocates are proposing to implement a measure that will devastate the Iranian middle class. Sanctions will make the population even more dependent on whatever support the government provides, and the current leaders will make sure that shortages do not apply to them and their supporters. If such sanctions are really effective, they will do enormous economic damage to Iran, but this will not precipitate an uprising or a collapse of government. All that will be accomplished is the impoverishment of the regime’s internal opponents. The result will be the exact opposite of what sanctions advocates expect.

Remarkably, Gerecht and Dubowitz admit early on that they don’t really believe that sanctions will change Iranian regime behavior:

Men who talk about crushing the “enemies of God” won’t give up their enriched uranium because transaction costs have increased. The acquisition of the bomb is now probably inseparable from the ruling elite’s religious identity.

As usual, the only other solution that occurs to the authors is regime change:

Iranians who are fed up with theocracy are certainly not going to embrace it if Mr. Obama declares gasoline sanctions the midwife of representative government.

They won’t have to embrace it. They will be stuck with it and they will also be stuck with the ever-increasing role of the IRGC and the military in economic life. Whatever representative government sanctions advocates expect to midwife will be stillborn. The people who would lead and work for such a government will have either fled the country to escape the economic stagnation or they will have been so preoccupied simply making a living that they will be unable to organize effectively against the regime.

Through all of it, they and their countrymen will know that their severe economic distress did not have to happen, but that it was inflicted on them by arrogant Western governments that refused to permit Iran even to develop nuclear power that it has a right to develop. Nationalist outrage will not make most Iranians into true believers in the current system, but it will direct their frustration and anger toward the foreign governments that are imposing sanctions on them. The insulting and condescending claim that these governments are really imposing those sanctions for the people’s own good will generate even stronger anger. Meanwhile, those who blame the regime for the country’s predicament will be under great pressure to remain quiet, or else they will appear to be aligning themselves with the governments that are inflicting the damage on Iran.

There is another issue that sanctions advocates never address: what if their proposal results in a new government, but the new government wants to pursue a bomb and continue Iran’s foreign policy? As far as they are concerned, nothing meaningful will have changed. Even if things happened more or less just as they envision, the current leadership fell and a “representative” government replaced it, why should we assume that the current regime’s assumed drive for a nuclear weapon will not continue under the next government? The Shah pursued a bomb, and the revolutionary regime is most likely pursuing a bomb, so what is going to prevent the next government from doing the same?

After all, if the civilian leadership changes the Iranian military establishment is not going to disappear and it is unlikely to abandon whatever nuclear ambitions it previously had. In Pakistan civilian governments come and go, but it is the military establishment that really dictates Pakistani security and foreign policies. It seems as if Iran is becoming much more like this as time goes on. So we should expect that the Iranian “deep state” will ensure a great deal of policy continuity.

The fantasies of Richard Haass aside, there is no guarantee that a new civilian leadership will make the Iranian governmet more “moderate” abroad (i.e., accommodating to U.S. demands). First, the new leadership may not want to end its support for Hizbullah and Hamas, and it may not want to abandon pursuit of nuclear weapons. Especially if the new leadership somehow came to power in the wake of brutal Western-imposed sanctions, might it not conclude that it needs to acquire a nuclear deterrent to prevent Iran from being treated that way in the future? Second, the military establishment may not give it much of a choice in the matter. For the IRGC and military to permit a change in civilian leadership, they would probably make some deal with the new civilian leaders that they should not interfere or attempt to change Iranian security and foreign policies very much at all. Even if the new government was inclined to make changes, it might not be allowed to make them, and it might not survive the attempt if it tried.

Sanctions advocates do not have a remotely persuasive argument that their proposal will destabilize the current regime, and their proposal would almost certainly destroy Iran’s opposition while doing nothing to change Iranian regime behavior. However, in the highly unlikely event that their policy succeeded in changing the government there is little reason to expect that this would yield the Iranian policy changes that they desire.

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Noble: Let’s Have Perpetual War, But No Earmarks, Please

His dovish stance on the war on terror and his support for earmarking (the gateway drug to huge spending) won’t wear well with newly inspired activists worried about federal spending and the debt. Either you are a fiscal conservative, or you’re not. Unfortunately, Ron Paul is not at the most basic level. ~Sean Noble

This nicely captures the incoherence of the Republican anti-Paul critique. In this view, Paul is far too hostile to the warfare state and the tremendous costs it imposes on the public, which are not just fiscal but extend to lost civil liberties as well. Somehow, this is seen as incompatible with being “worried about federal spending and the debt,” as if military spending had nothing to do with either one. Despite his career of voting against pretty much every expansion of government and constantly voting for spending reductions, Paul is deemed insufficiently fiscally conservative because he has defended the use of the dreaded earmark. Earmarks are the targets of people who like to pretend they care about spending so that they can avoid advocating genuinely unpopular spending cuts. So-called fiscal conservatives who obsess over earmarks but ignore real entitlement reform, which would be almost all of them in Congress, have no business lecturing anyone about fiscal responsibility or fiscal conservatism. Obviously, if Ron Paul does not qualify as a fiscal conservative, no one does.

It has never made much sense to me that there can be people who are furious with “big government” for excessive spending but who simultaneously have no problem vesting the same government with virtually limitless power to seize, detain, wiretap, attack and kill just about anyone it wants to target. Paul is “dovish” on these things because he applies the same skepticism and opposition to unchecked and concentrated power used in the name of national security that he applies to the government’s other activities. Noble’s “worried” activists are people who are very familiar with the old line about a government big enough to give you everything you want, but they seem not to understand that the same danger of unchecked power is even greater when it applies to the government’s power to spy on communications, imprison and mistreat suspects, and start wars. If Paul’s opposition to these government encroachments and abuses of power do not “wear well” with many activists, it is the activists who ought to reflect on how they reconcile their deference to the security and warfare state with their stated desire for reducing the size and scope of government.

We may hope that the movement Ron Paul began does continue on beyond his time in office. As he said many times during his campaign and since then, it was the message he was delivering that inspired the movement. Even so, it would be a serious mistake to try to run off or marginalize the most visible political leader in this movement, and it would be especially misguided to do it for the reasons Noble gives here.

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The Dubai Assassination and U.S. Drone Strikes

Funny how no one seriously objects when U.S. Predators carry out similar hits on al-Qaeda operatives but the whole world is in uproar when the Israelis target members of Hamas — an organization that is morally indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. ~Max Boot

By “no one,” Boot naturally means no one in Western governments. Plenty of people object to drone strikes in Pakistan for any number of reasons. Not that anyone cares, but I have been objecting to them for years. These strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty, ignore the stated demands of Pakistani authorities, often cause some civilian casualties, deepen the distrust and alienation of the civilian population in the western regions of Pakistan (and turn more of the Pakistani public against the U.S.), and for all those reasons they tend to be strategically counterproductive. They cause much of the same diplomatic and political damage that the apparent Israeli involvement in Mabhouh’s assassination is causing now. The difference is that the damage is being done in Pakistan instead of in Europe. Pakistan’s government complains, and we ignore it. Major European and Arab governments complain, and Israel cannot simply brush it off. The diplomatic fallout has been amplified because of the passport issue, and because the hit took place on the soil of a relatively friendly, U.S.-allied Arab state.

There is nothing amusing or peculiar about any of this. Our reliance on drone strikes is an error. There are several reasons that there are not more complaints in the Western media about drone strikes in Pakistan. One simple reason is that they are not captured on camera, and there is no ready-made evidence of their effects. Second, they happen in remote regions of Pakistan, which do not hold much interest for Western audiences. Third, Al Qaeda is pretty much universally reviled in the West, so no one cares how or why their members are killed.

As atrocious and appalling as their past and present conduct is, Hamas still retains in much of the non-American West some minimal legitimacy as a major faction in Palestinian politics. Hamas and Al Qaeda may be morally indistinguishable, but politically they have very different standings in the eyes of many other states. Israel’s major regional ally Turkey has a ruling party that is somewhat sympathetic to Hamas, while it is resolutely hostile to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. These are rather obvious political distinctions that Boot ought to understand, and the Israeli government must also understand these things. It is pointless to pretend that these distinctions don’t exist and to complain that the different reactions to drone strikes and the Dubai assassination prove a double standard. Whether or not there should be a double standard, Israel’s government has to take for granted that there is one. If Israel’s patron and the global superpower can get away with something, however misguided it may be, it does not always follow that it can act with the same impunity.

Israel’s government had to know the deteriorating international position it was in. After Lebanon and Gaza, and after the numerous spats with its own allies over the last year, Netanyahu’s government could not have been unaware of the political consequences that would follow this action. As Ronen Bergman said, either Netanyahu was not consulted in making the decision, which is hard to believe, or he miscalculated in going ahead. To order the assassination under the present circumstances showed at best poor judgment, and at worst a reckless disregard for the strategic interests of Israel.

Reliable “pro-Israel” advocates cannot seem to grasp this, but almost all Western objections to this action have nothing to do with any sympathy for Mabhouh or his cause. Just as objections to drone strikes in Pakistan have nothing to do with sympathy for Al Qaeda or opposition to U.S. objectives in the region, Western protests over the manner in which Israel fights it enemies is almost always motivated by an interest in keeping Israel from making counterproductive blunders that empower its enemies and isolate it from those states that would otherwise be willing to support Israel. There is probably no better ally of genuine anti-Israel sentiment than the reflexive apologists for every mistake and crime the Israeli government commits. As the old proverb goes, “The yes-man is your enemy, but your friend will argue with you.”

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Losing The Future

One of the things that many people have noticed since the release of the Mount Vernon statement on Wednesday is the sharp contrast between the youth of the creators of the Sharon statement and the notable absence of students and young people from the latest gathering. Christopher Buckley quotes Sam Tanenhaus on this point, “The new/old submission seems more like Geriatrics Against Obama.” Fifty years ago, one could have written, as Nile Gardiner does today, that “conservatism is the future” with some reason for believing the claim to be true, and in the decades that followed there was a significant conservative political coalition that seemed to be growing in strength over time. Today it is increasingly difficult to believe anything of the kind.

Pew released a survey on Thursday showing that Millennials have soured a bit on Democrats in the last year. Despite this, they remain the one age group with 50%+ Democratic party ID and the one age group in which 50%+ say they will vote Democratic this fall. The percentage of self-identifying conservatives among Millennials is basically equal with that of self-identifying liberals (28% vs. 29%). The youngest generation of voters is unusually ill-disposed towards movement conservatism of the sort on display at CPAC, which is the event Gardiner hails not only as proof that conservatism is the future but as an “intellectually vibrant” gathering.

Gardiner can believe what he wants, but the evidence we have available right now suggests that conservatism is losing, indeed has already lost, most of the next generation, and that conservatism as we know it today is going to keep losing ground in the future. It is possible that something could happen in the next few years that could change that significantly, but typically once a cohort attaches itself to one party or the other its later voting habits become fairly predictable. The generation that came of age during the Bush years and overwhelmingly backed Obama is not going to become receptive to movement conservatism.

On average, Millennials’ underlying social and political views put them well to the left of their elders. If you dig into the full report, you will see that the recent Republican resurgence owes almost everything to the dramatic shift among members of the so-called “Silent Generation,” whose voting preferences on the generic ballot have gone from being 49-41 Democrat in 2006 to 48-39 Republican for 2010. There have been small shifts in other age groups toward the Republicans, but by far it is the alienation of voters aged 65-82 that has been most damaging to the Democrats’ political strength*. As we all know, these are the voters who are far more likely to turn out than Millennials, which is why Democratic prospects for this election seem as bad as they do even though the Pew survey says that Democrats lead on the generic ballot in every other age group. Among Boomers, Democrats lead 46-42, and among Gen Xers they barely lead 45-44. In other words, the main reason why the GOP is enjoying any sort of political recovery is that many elderly voters have changed their partisan preferences since the last midterm. Republicans remain behind among all voters younger than 65. That does not seem to herald the future revival of movement conservatism of the sort Gardiner is so embarrassingly praising.

* It is mainly among these voters that the conventional wisdom is half right that that the push for health care legislation has proved to be very damaging to the Democrats. Of course, this is not because of some instinctive horror at excessive spending, which does not exist on a large scale in any age group, but because health care legislation is seen as a threat to the entitlement spending from which voters from this age group benefit. As a matter of pure electoral politics, the GOP’s transformation into the defenders of the sanctity of Medicare has been completely in line with the interests of the elderly voters who have come running back to the GOP in the last year. Of course, this is exactly not the profile of a party and movement of the future, but one attempting to preserve the status quo for the benefit of the oldest among us at the expense of our future.

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The Return Of Missile Defense

After the administration scrapped the central European missile defense plan, Obama’s domestic critics were horrified by the “betrayal” and “appeasement” that it represented. We have heard this for the last year from Republicans (it may be the one thing on which almost all of them agree), and we recently heard it echoed in some of the CPAC speeches earlier this week. This complaint was always absurd. There were some administration supporters who unrealistically expected that the decision would yield greater Russian cooperation on pressuring Iran. For my part, I exaggerated the significance of the decision and neglected to notice how little the policy had actually changed. As we have been seeing in recent weeks with the announcement of an agreement with Romania to establish an installation there, there was always little reason to expect improved Russian cooperation when the re-configured missile defense plan was likely to irritate Moscow in much the same way that the earlier plan did. The Economist reports on the new plan:

The new system, the Obama administration officials said at the time, will be more flexible and will have a land component from 2015. Poland will eventually host one base. And earlier this month Romania—after the briefest of talks—announced that it would be the site for interceptors. American officials are trying to find a consolation prize for Bulgaria, the runner-up, which says it would like a base too.

This has annoyed Russia. Its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the Kremlin had complained to America about the Romanian “surprise” followed by a Bulgarian one. In fact, America itself seems to have been caught unprepared by the enthusiasm of its allies. It had expected protracted negotiations, of the kind it had pursued with Poland. This would have provided a chance to soothe Russian feelings at a time when America is seeking its help to impose sanctions against Iran.

The Romanian and Bulgarian reactions are understandable. New NATO members have traditionally been eager to show their usefulness and their support for U.S. initiatives. The main problem is not that NATO members are willing to sign on to whatever pointless scheme Washington devises, but that Washington keeps enlisting them in pointless schemes. As The Economist explains, the new system might be better able to protect all of Europe than the earlier one, but it is still protecting Europe against a non-existent threat. Iranian missiles can barely reach Romania, much less farther west and north in Europe, and Iran has no reason to launch missiles at any European country. Iran has significant commercial relationships with many members of NATO, and it has no particular grievances against most of the Alliance. Washington proposes to guard Europe against a threat that doesn’t exist and which wouldn’t be directed at Europe even if it did. For the sake of this unnecessary scheme, Washington continues to ignore the original causes of Russian complaints about the system, which were our unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and the proposed establishment of military installations in central and eastern European countries that have joined NATO. The last point is related to the larger resentment over NATO expansion itself.

Mary Elise Sarotte wrote a valuable op-ed last fall outlining the original discussions in 1990 that informed Moscow’s later complaints that NATO had violated the understanding reached over German unification by expanding into central and eastern Europe. As Prof. Sarotte explains, Gorbachev never secured formal, written guarantees about this, but apparently took the West German government’s assurances as if they were binding on NATO as a whole. Sarotte writes:

Mr. Kohl chose to echo Mr. Baker, not Mr. Bush. The chancellor assured Mr. Gorbachev, as Mr. Baker had done, that “naturally NATO could not expand its territory” into East Germany. The documents available do not record Mr. Kohl using the presidential phrase — “special military status” — that the National Security Council had rushed over to him. Mr. Kohl’s foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, visiting the Kremlin as well, assured his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, that “for us, it stands firm: NATO will not expand itself to the East.”

Crucially, the Gorbachev-Kohl meeting ended with a deal, as opposed to the Gorbachev-Baker session the previous day. After listening to Mr. Kohl, Mr. Gorbachev agreed that Germany could unify internally. Mr. Kohl and his aides publicized this major concession immediately at a press conference. Then they returned home to begin merging the two Germanys under one currency and economic system.

In essentially settling for a gentleman’s agreement, Mr. Gorbachev missed some important pitfalls and then failed to do anything about them. First, Mr. Kohl spoke for West Germany, not for the United States or for NATO as a whole. Second, the Soviet leader got nothing about the trans-Atlantic alliance in writing. Third, Mr. Gorbachev did not criticize Mr. Kohl publicly when he and Mr. Bush later agreed to offer only a special military status to the former East Germany instead of a pledge that NATO wouldn’t expand. Finally, he did not catch subtle signals that, by early 1990, speculative discussion in the West about NATO’s future involved the inclusion of Eastern Europe as well. Mr. Gorbachev later complained to Mr. Kohl that he felt he had fallen into a trap.

Russian governments ever since have viewed NATO expansion and subsequent efforts to deploy military personnel and equipment in new NATO member countries as breaches of the understanding that Gorbachev thought he had reached with Kohl. Even if Moscow recognized today that Kohl could not have made guarantees for NATO as a whole, the perception that NATO took advantage and exploited Russian weakness to expand eastwards would continue to cause resentment towards anything Washington tries to do in eastern Europe. That brings us back to the unnecessary missile defense plan now being proposed.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the new proposed system could successfully intercept a missile launched from Iran, the plan is still designed to protect against something that is almost certainly never going to happen. Missile defense became all the rage again in the ’90s at the same time that the now-outdated concept of “rogue states” was fashionable. The main idea back then was that “rogue states” could not be deterred by threatening massive retaliation, so there had to be some alternative means of countering their missile launches. The thinking seems to be that “rogue states” don’t adhere to some international norms, and therefore somehow cannot be trusted to have the most basic instincts for self-preservation that all rational international actors have. As “rogues” and wild cards, they are supposedly more unpredictable and therefore harder to deter, but all of this has always been nonsense. The political assumptions informing all of this are completely wrong.

In the event that Iran ever develops a missile that could reach Berlin or Paris or even London, it is not going to launch strikes against any of them. It will not for the same reason that it is not going to launch missiles against any of our allies in the Near East and the Gulf that it can conceivably attack now. Quite simply, Iran will not do this because it does not want to suffer retaliation from U.S. and allied forces. Regardless of where it is based and what kind of interceptors it uses, missile defense in eastern Europe continues to guard against a phantom threat, and it continues to irritate Moscow to no constructive purpose.

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Whatever It Takes

These terrorists aren’t trying to kill us because we offended them. They attack us because they want to impose their view of the world on as many people as they can, and America is standing in their way. We need to make it unmistakably clear that we will do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to defeat radical Islamic terrorism.

We will punish — we will punish their allies, like Iran [bold mine-DL] — and we will stand with our allies, like Israel. ~Marco Rubio

I know this is what Rubio’s audience wanted to hear, and he may even believe it, but how is it that people aspiring to high office can continue to repeat this nonsense and still be taken seriously? Political grievances are always major causes of terrorist attacks. Those grievances may not explain everything, we may not take those grievances seriously, and we may have no interest in addressing those grievances, but they are responsible for generating violent resistance. We pretend otherwise at our continuing peril. Indeed, the longer such denial prevails in our politics, the longer policies of perpetual war will remain in place.

No doubt there are jihadists who have ideological fantasies of dominating the world, just as there were undoubtedly communists who imagined that their ideology would sweep across the planet, but this explains nothing about their current objectives, it explains nothing about the sources of their recruiting, and it explains nothing about the sympathy of other Muslims with their goals. It was not devotion to theoretical goals of global communist domination that drove millions of Vietnamese to fight against foreign powers intervening in the affairs of their country. Except perhaps for a dedicated cadre, jihadists are not intent on dominating us or our allies, which they have shown repeatedly they are completely unable to do, but are very intent on expelling us from territories they believe we and our allies occupy unjustly and they are also intent on retaliating against what they believe are unjust military actions against their co-religionists.

Rubio says that we should be willing to do whatever it takes to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism.” Of course, if he hasn’t the first clue why such terrorism exists, what are the odds that he will judge correctly what it takes to defeat it? Suppose that part of “whatever it takes” involves acknowledging the role of U.S. and allied policies in fomenting and provoking violent resistance. Would Rubio still be willing to do “whatever it takes” even if it means admitting something that contradicts his simplistic understanding of the world?

Iran is not an ally of anti-American jihadist groups. Despite a fairly constant barrage of disinformation to try to establish some connection between Al Qaeda and Tehran, which hates everything Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies represent, there is no reason for connecting Iran with anti-American jihadist groups. Rubio is either trafficking here in the myth of some globally unified jihadism with which Iran’s government is being conflated or he is making Iran’s proxies into our enemies. Either way, he is misinformed here as well.

I’ll leave Rubio the last word, and perhaps it will help him reflect on his miserably poor understanding of the relevant national security and foreign policy questions he addressed in his speech:

Clever one line slogans aren’t going to spare you the need to discuss policy issues in detail.

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Pushback

Marco Rubio is reportedly the new conservative hero of the hour after his keynote address to CPAC. This was partly because he told the story of his family and his upbringing, which was sure to please the crowd, but it was mostly because he launched into a tedious lecture about American exceptionalism and because he made some pretty wild claims about the significance of the upcoming election. Let’s take the second point first. Rubio said that we were seeing the “single greatest political pushback in American history.” There is a greater pushback today than there was with secession, Unionism, prohibitionism, anti-prohibitionism, the civil rights movement and the backlash against civil rights? That is quite remarkable. He must know something the rest of us don’t.

Rubio seems very fond of incredible exaggerations. He offered up another one when he said that “2010 is not just a choice between Democrat and Republican…2010 is referendum on the very identity of our nation.” So what does that mean? If Republicans gain half of what they need to retake both houses, the “identity of our nation” as he understands it will have been half-preserved and half-lost? Or does it mean that anything short of Republican majorities is an endorsement of all the things Rubio is railing against? If there is a referendum on the identity of our nation, presumably that means that one result will confirm one identity and another result will confirm the other. If the referendum comes out the wrong way, will Rubio appeal it to the Supreme Court and try to have the result overturned? Of course, I’m joking, but Rubio certainly is not.

Fortunately, national identity is not something for Marco Rubio to stake in the election, but it is an extraordinary thing to say. How sad and false it is to think that national identity hinges on the outcome of something as genuinely trivial as Congressional elections. How fragile and weak is the exceptionalism Rubio praises that it can be undone by one election? I have no idea whether Rubio really believes this, but politicians use this kind of language to generate panic and fear when they have little else to offer. This is one more in a long line of alarmist claims that Republicans trot out every election year to scare their voters into turning out. In presidential election years, it is always the old “the Supreme Court hangs in the balance!” argument that they throw out to mobilize disaffected social conservatives, and in the last decade they have relied on the specter of terrorism to do a lot of the work for them. Remember that it was just two years ago when Romney dropped out of the primary race at CPAC because he said he didn’t want to facilitate a Democratic win and thus aid the victory of terrorists. That was yesterday’s demagoguery. Apparently the fate of national identity itself is at stake this time. This claim should be embarrasing to anyone who thinks about it for more than a minute.

I called Rubio’s exceptionalist rhetoric tedious because so much of it is obviously an exaggeration of reality. Rubio’s speech reminded me of Fred Thompson’s claim that Americans shed more blood for the freedom of other nations than any other people in the world. This was demonstrably untrue, but it pleased the crowd and so he kept saying it. There’s nothing quite like denigrating the rest of the world, including our allies, and chanting, “We’re Number 1!” to get this kind of audience fired up. Rubio’s speech was filled with overblown claims about the uniqueness of the economic opportunity possible in America. America has the “the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed against rich people in the marketplace and competition” and it is “the only place in the world where a company that started as an idea drawn out on the back of a cocktail napkin can one day be publicly traded on Wall Street.” This gave David Frum an easy opening to observe:

The sad fact is that as best we can measure, present-day America offers less upward mobility than many other advanced countries, including Denmark, Germany, Canada and Australia.

Having overstated America’s uniqueness on this score, Rubio naturally divides the world into a stark contrast between a free America and the slavish other nations:

Almost every other country in the world chose to have the government run the economy. They chose to allow government to decide which companies survive and fail.

I wonder how many fit into that “almost” loophole, since there are dozens and dozens of countries where the government does not “run the economy.” Other governments do consume a larger share of GDP than ours, but a great many of them are a long way from anything remotely like a command economy. It is revealing that Rubio’s American exceptionalism leans so heavily on the denial of the existence of real capitalist economies in the rest of the world. Normally Americans make excessive claims in the other direction by claiming far more influence on the economic practices adopted in other countries than we probably deserve credit for, but at least that would seem to be much more consistent with an excessive Americanism than what Rubio was saying.

Granted, this is a red-meat speech for an audience of activists and true believers. Even-tempered, accurate statements are naturally going to be few and far between. Even so, it is stunning how factually wrong and misinformed Rubio was in the most high-profile speech of his career in the keynote address at the main conservative political conference of the year.

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An Empty Suit For A Bankrupt Movement

If the Mount Vernon statement was a meaningless declaration filled with platitudes and stock phrases, Mitt Romney’s speech to CPAC was yet another expression of the political persona of a man who lives and breathes cliches and trite re-statements of thirty year-old ideas without really believing a word of any of it. As if to underline how little credibility he has on national security, these were Romney’s remarks on what he thinks the U.S. should do:

We will strengthen our security by building missile defense, restoring our military might, and standing-by and strengthening our intelligence officers.

Restore our military might? To the extent that it needs to be restored, it is so that it can recover from the excessive demands and overstretch that have been imposed on it by the policies championed by Romney and Romney’s party. The obsession with missile defense is simply comical. There is probably no item so irrelevant to U.S. security needs, and yet it is inevitably the one thing that every mainstream conservative and Republican insists that we need to have.

When it comes to the state of conservatism, Romney does no better:

They won, we lost. But you know, you learn a lot about people when you see how they react to losing. We didn’t serve up excuses or blame our fellow citizens. Instead, we listened to the American people, we sharpened our thinking and our arguments, we spoke with greater persuasiveness [bold mine-DL], we took our message to more journals and airwaves, and in the American tradition, some even brought attention to our cause with rallies and Tea parties.

Where has all this sharpening of thought and argument been happening? The main example of real conservative policy thinking in the last year has come from Paul Ryan, whose ideas the Republican leadership cannot reject quickly enough. When exactly were they demonstrating this “greater persuasiveness”? When they dishonestly demagogued the missile defense decision and claimed that Obama had handed over Poland to the Russians? When they foolishly urged government proclamations of solidarity with Iranian protesters so as to better weaken and undermine the Iranian opposition? Perhaps it was when they managed to get the administration to include some tax credits for hiring only to denounce the same credits as failed Jimmy Carter economics?

Of course, in reality it has been the opposite. As the Mount Vernon statement reminds us, there has been not only no sharpening of thought and argument, not to mention no re-thinking or learning, but there has also not been much thinking of any kind going on. There have been no efforts at persuasion, because there is no real positive agenda with which to persuade anyone, but instead there have been numerous efforts at rejection and denunciation. That might be all that one expects from an opposition party, but it is a far cry from Romney’s imaginary “vigorously positive, intellectually rigorous agenda.”

Update: Somehow I overlooked the most absurd part of the speech when Romney referred to “liberal neo-monarchists.” I know this is an old Republican trope (even Romney’s insults are over thirty years old), but it remains as stupid now as it was thirty-five years ago when Reagan compared liberals to Revolutionary-era Tories.

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